If you live in Hackney, east London, you’ll have seen all the things you see if we keep our eyes open. Kids on corners, things like that. And one day, going back a long time – 10 years probably – I saw a kid by a supermarket round the corner from me. He was about 12 and he was obviously dealing drugs. It was the first time that I’d actually seen the handover, so I watched him for a little while, then I went over. He wouldn’t talk to me – he thought I was a cop. I told him I was a writer – he asked for money. Kinda cheeky, but vulnerable as well. I saw him again the next day. I became curious about the whole thing.
I talked to a friend of mine, Jerry Jackson, who’s lived in Hackney pretty much all his life and, though he’s never been on the road himself, is very respected among the community. He put me in touch with some kids he knew on the road and they told me their stories. They told me the most extraordinary things: how they lived their life, how the business was run, the risks they took. They were all street level, though, and it took me a while to find somebody further up the chain who would show me the same level of trust.
When I had collected all those stories, I went to the BBC and they commissioned me to write a pilot. Originally it was a single 90-minute film. But in the end Channel 4 made it as the Top Boy series. They gave me complete creative freedom. The first season was shown across four consecutive nights, and they promoted it really well. It just became a thing. People couldn’t believe that this could be on TV.
What I was really pleased about was that the black community responded very positively. Most people, from what I read and heard, felt it was an accurate depiction of many lives within the borough and beyond.
At that time, in 2011, just to have that many people of colour in a show was extraordinary. We went out of our way to make sure that this was true both in front of the camera and behind it – something that we’ve done on the new season, too.
After the second series aired in 2013, I went to lunch with the head of drama at Channel 4. He told me that the head of the channel didn’t want to do it anymore. As a screenwriter, you have to be prepared to live with failure and disappointment, but this felt different. I knew how much people cared about it. I knew how devastated the young actors would be.
We talked about doing something else, making a movie maybe. Someone even suggested a musical. But that seemed mad. So we wrote it off and I thought we’d never see it again.
Then in 2015 my producer partners called. They’d had word that Drake really loved the show. There were ideas floating around, such as him buying the rights and doing a remake. But we didn’t want to give up the rights, and we didn’t want it to be relocated to Detroit.
I have to confess: before I met Drake in London, I didn’t know who he was. I told my kids I was going out to meet some singer. They nearly fainted when I told them who. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was absolutely passionate about Top Boy. He was also modest and humble, which was very endearing. And all he said was: “Look, I wanna do whatever I can to help bring this back.”
After the meeting, we went back to work. It took a while to come up with a storyline for a new series. You had to bear in mind that the average life of a roadman is pretty short. You go to jail, you get killed – or, if you make it to your late 20s, most of them move away from it. Now that Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson)are in their late 30s, what would they be doing?
Once we had that, we approached Netflix. We had a meeting with them and Drake in LA. Drake was absolutely pivotal. Netflix were interested in a little bit of story from me, but it was Drake’s passion that impressed them the most.
The third series hinges on Dushane coming back to London from Jamaica, the king in exile returning to take his throne. Simultaneously, Sully arrives home from jail, only to find there are newcomers in our fictional Summerhouse estate.
Dave, the hip-hop artist, plays a new character, a very aggressive, semi-psychopath called Mouldy. I’ve met Dave a couple of times and it’s clear we gave him a very different character from what the man is, but he absolutely killed it. Another musician, Little Simz, plays a single mother and part-time beautician. Her character is completely solid.
I’ve seen Hackney transform massively over the last 10 years. We live cheek-by-jowl with well-to-do people and people who are really, really struggling – people who are one paycheck away from destitution. So we wanted to incorporate that change in the new series. When Dushane returns, he walks into a newly gentrified hipster café and the barista weighs out the coffee beans on drug dealer’s scales. That actually happened, and that is also a part of east London now.
But I hope that people across the world accept it, too. Writers always talk about finding universal themes, and family is at the heart of Top Boy. Your community, your neighbourhood. This world exists in American cities, in European cities. But we’ll soon see.
Ronan Bennett, as told to Bella Taliesen.
Top Boy is available to stream on Netflix on September 13th
Left to right: Shone wears shirt ALBAM, tracksuit bottoms STONE ISLAND, trainers and hat stylist’s own. Alexander trousers CARHARTT, trainers NIKE, t-shirt and accessories Alexander’s own. Micheal wears jacket ACNE, t-shirt LOEWE, trousers and shoes LOUIS VUITTON and jacket Michael’s own. Hope wears top ACNE, trousers AIR PANGEA and trainers NIKE. Shiann wears vest COTTWEILER, t-shirt NAPA MARTINE ROSE, trousers CARHARTT and trainers NIKE. Keiyon wears t-shirt CARHARTT, trousers A-COLD-WALL and trainers NIKE. Michael wears shirt ALBAM, t-shirt STUSSY, trousers STONE ISLAND and shoes ACNE. Nyshai jacket and trousers COTWEILER, trainers NIKE and accessories Nyshai’s own. Ricky shirt STUSSY, t-shirt C.P. COMPANY, trousers STONE ISLAND, trainers NIKE and accessories Ricky’s own. Reniko shirt PRADA, t-shirt CARHARTT, trousers and accessories Reniko’s own.
Hair NURIYE SONMEZ and RANELLE CHAPMAN using LEONOR GREYL, Make-up MAYA MAN using KIEHLS, Digital operator PHILIP BRADLEY, Retouching STUDIO RM, Production ROSANNA GOULDMAN, Production Management KATHERINE BAMPTON, Photographer’s First Assistant STRATON HERON, Styling Assistance WISAM MASRI, Make-up Assistance GEORGIA WILLIAMS, Thanks to TOWER HAMLETS, NICOLE OJO, MITSUMI REH-VAN.